Infrastructure can dramatically impact the quality of life in a community. To find out how your community can reimagine their infrastructure, read below about Athens-Clarke County’s experience.
A version of this story was first published in the March/April 2023 issue of GMA's Georgia's Cities magazine.
It is an enduring sentiment that Georgia is the “Top State for Doing Business,” citing the state’s dynamic collaboration with business partners to foster economic growth and opportunities. This reputation, bolstered by rapid economic development, has brought attention to the state’s glaring need for reinvestment in existing infrastructure. More populous areas, such as Athens-Clarke County, have experienced an increase in the daily use of infrastructure, without seeing an increase in operational dollars, leading to poor road and bridge conditions and persisting issues with safety, environmental sustainability, and community connectivity.
To address these issues, the Biden-Harris Administration has announced the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), allocating roughly $4.2 billion to the state of Georgia in the form of multi-faceted grant programs, both formulaic and competitive. Typically, formula grants are automatically awarded to eligible entities based on pre-determined criteria, such as per capita income levels, demographic composition, or other statistical measures within a given area. Competitive grants, such as the grants mentioned below, are awarded after a rigorous selection process. Usually, this process requires applicants to provide a compelling narrative about why they should receive funding from a given program, interweaving aspects like the context of their community, cost-benefit analyses, and strong evidence-based solutions in the form of a project proposal.
Of the approximately 154 projects identified for funding through BIL, the following categories are highlighted as essential investments for Georgia’s infrastructure: roads and bridges, internet, water, public transit, clean transit and school buses, electric vehicle charging, clean energy and power, airports, ports and waterways, resilience, and legacy pollution cleanup. In a sweeping success, Athens-Clarke County has been awarded funding from multiple programs to address the multitude of infrastructure needs experienced by the Athens community.
"Envision a Safe Athens" and Bridge Investments
Firstly, the Department of Transportation’s Safe Streets for All (SS4A) Grant Program has awarded the Athens-Clarke County Government roughly $1 million to develop a comprehensive safety action plan aptly named “Envision a Safe Athens.” This comprehensive infrastructure grant will be used for three main purposes, all working towards planning efforts, data collection, and supplemental infrastructure improvements.
Planning efforts are aiming to develop plans to improve Athens’ current infrastructure. These plans include a Vision Zero Plan, a Safe Routes to Schools Plan, and a bicycle network Wayfinding Plan while also helping in the update of the Athens in Motion Plan.
Another group of projects covers the need for more data about the influx of transportation usage, such as vehicle, bike, and pedestrian counting hardware, road asset data collection efforts, and a multi-modal traffic database subscription access.
The last portion of funding is reserved for minor capital infrastructure improvements like a Safety and Traffic Calming Pilot Program and traffic signal camera improvements.
Another venture to rehabilitate local infrastructure was funded as a part of the Bridge Investment Program (BIP) through the Department of Transportation, targeting six bridges in the Athens-Clarke County area. An estimated $772,000 was awarded to the county for a planning study, specifically working towards a plan to rehabilitate and replace the identified bridges, as well as investigate possible solutions for traffic congestion and inadequate pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.
"Reimagining North Avenue"
A map of the improvements to be made under the "Reimagine North Avenue" project. (Source: Athens-Clarke County Government)
As part of the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) Grant Program, Athens-Clarke County was highlighted as one of the counties receiving funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation, specifically for their “Reimagine North Avenue” project.
The grant seeks to innovate the historic North Avenue with critical improvements, such as replacing the aging bridge over the North Oconee River, connecting the Greenway Corridor to the North Avenue Corridor, building out pedestrian infrastructure, and allowing for multimodal transportation usage along the roadway.
This project would close the gap between lower-income communities that reside north of State Route 10 and the resources found in Downtown Athens. With roughly $25 million allocated toward the project, the Athens-Clarke County Government will aim to provide increased access to crucial services, such as employment, education, healthcare, public transit, and recreational areas.
Six Tips to Take Away
Given that Athens-Clarke County has seemingly cracked the code for grant writing, Payton Johnson, GMA Research Intern, interviewed Daniel Sizemore, Bicycle-Pedestrian Safety Coordinator, to get more information on how other cities can improve their odds of receiving critical funding for infrastructure. Daniel shared with me the following tips:
1. Do a “Walk Audit”
The best way to understand your community’s needs is by taking to the streets and investigating it in-person. For infrastructure, Daniel advises others to walk on the sidewalk of a busy street and take note of the existing structures. Did infrastructure grow in the most efficient way, or was it added as an after-thought? Does this pose as a serious threat to a person’s quality of life, whether that be physical or social? If people are suffering from failures in your community, demonstrate how you aim to rectify themwith your proposed grant plans.
2. Elected Officials Need to Care
The best way to gain traction on your grant application is tangible support from elected local officials. When confronted with a dangerous bridge, Daniel invited a Commissioner of that region to walk the bridge alongside him. The Commissioner quickly noted how unsafe the conditions were and wrote a letter of support that encouraged further bipartisan support, both at the state and national level. He notes that a one-page brief on the specific issue is very helpful to get attention at the state and national level.
3. Look Around, Everywhere
While traveling, Daniel makes sure to stop and take a long, hard look at the existing infrastructure of a city. Whether it’s Minneapolis, DC, Mobile, or Raleigh, it’s important to take pictures and ask questions about how they have structured their city and what improvements they are making. Certain aspects may be different, such as features that respond to snow or heavier foot traffic, but they provide an interesting reference point when determining a path forward for your city’s solutions.
4. Create an Action Plan
Applying for planning grants, such as the Safe Streets For All (SS4A) Action Planning Grant, provides a great opportunity for local governments to create a foundational action plan to accompany the implementation aspect of a given grant program. By applying for this type of funding, Daniel will be able to stretch their local dollars and hire a consultant to help create a roadmap for potential projects and their prioritization as identified by the community and his own observations. The development of an action plan establishes clear priorities and helps create a cohesive narrative for his office to write a grant application.
5. Hire a Consultant
Consultants are the best resource for local governments to make sure they are “checking all of the boxes.” Processes like benefit-cost analyses are hard to piece together, but consultants can help simplify the process. Likewise, consultants have been exposed to numerous grant projects across multiple states and presidential administrations, so they can bring fresh ideas to your grant writing team.
6. But Don’t Check Out
Consultants, while very helpful, are not the end-all, be-all of grant writing. Combine their expertise with your own area of study: your community! Daniel encourages local governments to consistently review an application and provide context of your community when needed. If you aren’t selected for a grant, schedule a debrief with the grant selection committee to collect feedback and identify areas of improvement. Daniel stated that it took several times for the Reimagine North Avenue project to be selected, so it’s not uncommon to need improvements from each cycle of applications. Any small mistake could mean not obtaining the opportunity of a lifetime, so due diligence is worth the extra time and effort.
A side-by-side look at the existing and proposed images of North Avenue. (Source: Athens-Clarke County Government)
GMA would like to thank Daniel Sizemore of Athens-Clarke County for taking the time to do the interview and share his expertise and to Payton Johnson, GMA Research Intern, for researching and preparing this story.